Saturday, May 25, 2013

Odd Space Ditty

Jet Junior is going through a very enthusiastic David Bowie phase right now, singing him, drawing him, remarking on the Thin White Duke's more memorable Seventies incarnations ("Eyes are different!" "Paint on his face!" "He's a singer!"), but is so far unmoved by astronaut Chris Hadfield's cover of Space Oddity. I can't say the same.

Space Oddity and I go a long way back. It might be the earliest Bowie song I know. No, hang on, that might be I Am A DJ. Or is it The Laughing Gnome? Cat People? Thanks to Sunday morning kids radio it's probably Gnome, dammit, but for the sake of the man’s preferred canon, let's say it's something else again - Ashes to Ashes. Freaky video, utterly memorable in song and visuals - that's the one. So, really, I suppose I experienced the story of Bowie's ill-fated astronaut Major Tom backwards, from Heaven's High back to Countdown.

And yet Oddity is the one that stuck with me because in our house it, Starman, and Life on Mars were the only three songs assured easy access to me until I was old enough to work out how to tape Let's Dance off the radio during its local chart peak. The three tunes were all collected on a compilation I actually wanted to feature on Jetsam under a different category. An LP of space tunes simply called, I think, Star Trek, featured paintings of your actual Kirk and Spock on the cover, but inside offering soundalikes of such fare as the Star Wars theme (erring on the side of the Giorgio Moroder interpretation), Close Encounters (again, a regional stab at Gene Page's great disco mix), Telstar (don't even hope for the Tornadoes/Joe Meek version nor even The Shadows), Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (nope), Night Flight to Venus, and Rocket Man. Alas, no chance of tracking down a picture or full track listing of that LP for the moment - even Google is doing a pretty good job at sweeping what's likely to be another K-Tel cash grab under the carpet. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Eventually making my acquaintance with the original Oddity via a British Pop box set changed little in the end - it was a still a really strange song, lyrically inventive with its countdown and key changes, and it tells a story! Not an easy story to decipher at the end, of course - does the hero lose contact with Ground Control accidentally or does he disconnect himself? It's deliberately vague and unashamedly juvenile space fable, its moral and conclusion left to the listener's interpretation. External interpretations came, of course, including the soundalike I'd heard, plus a rivetingly spartan, twitchy 1979 remake performed by a post-Low Bowie on Kenny Everett's TV show, patently and visually linking the original with the imminent strung-out Scary Monsters sequel (its minimal bass kick-and-snare backing recalling also to my ears Five Years' backing beat). A few years later and there is Peter Schilling's 1983 literal Europop re-telling of the story in Major Tom (Coming Home). After that, the literal grounding in Ashes to Ashes, and later still a posthumous cut-up resurrection in the Pet Shop Boys remix of Hallo Spaceboy in 1996 which, again, excused itself before coming to any form of explanation. As it ought to have by then, of course.

Chris Hadfield’s in-orbit cover does something new, of course, leaps apart from Schilling and Tennant/Lowe’s rather too reverential nods. It’s by no means an attempt at a further chapter to Major Tom, but an endearingly personal sign-off from one of our farthest frontiers, heaven’s high being this time a breathtaking and uplifting window onto our planet home as the ISS glides over oceans an continents, observing pinpoints of light that mark the cities of the world. Hadfield’s voice is for the most part up to the job, and he acquits himself remarkably well with his guitar in a zero-G environment, but it’s the sentiment behind his rewriting that really strikes me “Your Commander comes back down to Earth and grows”, providing a version of Major Tom who completes his mission, returns to Earth changed and equally proud and humbled, and shows us all in our best light – from the anonymous distance of space. It's a profound, humanist and ultimately optimistic piece against Bowie's tripping, existential original.


  1. Thoughtful post. Hadfield is a real inspiration.

    Don't forget 'Bowie' by Flight of the Conchords!

  2. Thanks, Barks! he certainly is an inspiration, and his non-singing videos are very cool as well.

    Forget FOTC's Bowie's In Space? I saw that live over ten years ago here in Wellington and nearly broke a rib that night from laughing :)

    I only realised while 'researching' this post how much their video references Bowie's original from his 1969 version of the song.